Why did my father refuse to do this one very specific Catholic practice?
September 6, 2022 3:50 PM   Subscribe

During Mass, right before the Gospel, the priest and the congregation make a small sign of the cross over their forehead, mouth, and heart. My father always refused to do this--any idea why?

He's just passed, so he can't answer for himself. I was always curious but never asked him, not sure why. Some details:

He was hardcore about what he deemed to be Vatican II stuff. There were a variety of minor liturgical things he deemed negatively to be pre-conciliar practices, for example, the ringing of the bells at the moment of transubstantiation, things like that he thought were relics of the Latin Mass and sort of corny.

The only thing I can think is that sometime during Vatican II it was determined that it was no longer necessary during vernacular Mass, for reasons I could only guess at, and that over time either the people, the Vatican, individual dioceses, other some combination of the three saw to it that the gesture returned. But that's just a guess.
posted by kensington314 to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I converted in 1981 and was not taught to do that gesture, although I saw most people doing so. Many did not. Now everyone does it (I don't).

We had a pastor who did things his way, and we had no communion bells for decades.

He retired at about the same time the hierarchy decreed we had to have bells, before a certain point in the Eucharistic prayer, and during consecration of both species.

I hate those bells!!! We also have to have one before the processional.

Cradle Catholics, depending on their age, are very used to them.
posted by jgirl at 4:04 PM on September 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Did he "refuse" to do it? Like, you heard someone tell him to do it and he told them to get bent? Or did he just not do it? My Dad did, my Mom didn't. Dad was a few years older than Mom and had a more conservative Catholic upbringing. (I wasn't taught to do it (growing up in 1980s-90s in Illinois)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:43 PM on September 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

To clarify/confirm, was this something he explicitly stated he refused to do or something he simply didn't do?

A lot of this stuff is extremely contingent on the archdiocese or even the parish. I too was not taught to do this in 80s/90s Illinois (in a parish that couldn't be bothered to do wine at communion--there was pretty clearly a crackdown after Cardinal Bernadin died because we started doing wine and having altar servers). My dad doesn't do it either (born 1950, Chicago). I honestly can't remember if this is a gesture that I never saw until I went to college in California or something that some people in my parish did and others didn't (like taking communion on the tongue--wasn't taught, most people didn't but some people did).
posted by hoyland at 4:47 PM on September 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

This done done while silently praying, "Lord, remain in my heart, on my lips, and in my mind" (or something similar). I was raised in the Midwest in the 1970s and we did this; we still do it in New England.

Not sure what is there that your dad would object to, honestly: it's kind of an exhortation to do better.

Does it ring any bells (so to speak) for you?
posted by wenestvedt at 4:57 PM on September 6, 2022 [4 favorites]

There's an old article here that suggests certain orders (like Carmelites) didn't adopt the practice since it came later than their founding. I could see a Carmelite nun telling her classes to not do it.

I was never taught it and just started copying people when they did it. Nobody ever explained it except for the one CCD nun that would mumble something about "mind, lips, heart" as she did it. But I can see how saying "May the words of the Gospel be on my mind, on my lips, and in my heart" would be interpreted as being for the priest alone.
posted by JoeZydeco at 5:21 PM on September 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This short article, 'Gestures at the Gospel', gives the answer.

Before Vatican II, both priest and people made the threefold sign of the cross. After Vatican II, only the priest made the gesture (or rather, only the priest was supposed to make it -- though in practice, a lot of people probably went on following the old familiar custom). The new rule was set out in the first and second editions (1969-70 and 1975 respectively) of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, as follows:
At the lectern the priest opens the book and says: The Lord be with you. Then he says: A reading from. . ., making the sign of the cross with his thumb on the book and on his forehead, mouth, and breast.
But then the third edition of the Roman Missal (2002) returned to the pre-conciliar custom: 'making the sign of the cross with his thumb on the book and on his forehead, mouth, and breast, which everyone else does as well'.

So your father was strictly correct in following the Vatican II practice. But he may not have realised that the rule had changed again in 2002.
posted by verstegan at 5:38 PM on September 6, 2022 [20 favorites]

Here's a video where a priest explains the pride of place of the Gospel within the Mass, and the tradition you refer to (which the priest says he was taught at a young age). For what it's worth.
posted by forthright at 5:40 PM on September 6, 2022

Response by poster: To a couple questions here, "refused" here means that grumbled a bit about how it wasn't actually part of the liturgy, once or twice over literally decades. But no one every pressured him to do it. I think verstegan's probably got it.

To your point, though, verstegan, it was always practiced in the two parishes we attended, on both sides of 2002. He may have known about the updated missal in 2002 and still gruffly opposed it; when Benedict changed the translation of the Mass in 2011 he was very grumpy about this clunky new language and stuck to the earlier translation for the rest of his life. Could see him feeling the same about aspects of the missal.

posted by kensington314 at 5:57 PM on September 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

I have a 1947 missal that says the priest signs "himself on the forehead, mouth, and breast." No mention of the congregation doing so. The 1967 missal I have does not mention it at all.

I was not brought up doing this in the 1960s, but a friend pointed it out to me in about 1974, and I've been doing it since then.
posted by FencingGal at 6:05 PM on September 6, 2022

I was raised to do this (Roman Catholic at Italian and Polish churches with priests born in the 1940s-1960s). I was told that while making those gestures I was supposed to to silently recite something like, “I think of the lord, I speak of the lord, I love the lord”. The priest did it too, and so did most of the congregants.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:13 PM on September 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

If it provides any context - I grew up Catholic in small-town CT in the 70s and 80s, in a relatively centrist-liberal parish, and we all did that gesture - but no one told me why, or even expressly told me I should. I just started copying it as a child because that's what everyone else was doing and now it's sort of instinctual (just like the pre-Benedict translation of the liturgy).

So it may be a Vatican II thing that got a little less attention compared to the other changes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:02 PM on September 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

Northern Panhandle of West Virginia Catholic here...born in 1976....everyone did the gesture.
posted by mmascolino at 8:22 PM on September 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Oh, another thought!

Some of the Vatican II changes weren't mandatory changes - they were optional ones. Like how the Mass was always only in Latin before Vatican II, but then after it wasn't; the actual Vatican II thing wasn't an across-the-board "we don't do Mass in Latin at all any more" kind of thing, it was about offering other languages as an option, i.e. "we have the Latin Mass still, but we also now have a service in English an hour later." And people could pick whatever they wanted. Or fasting/fish only on Fridays; that wasn't mandatory any more, but if people still wanted to do it for extra piety, they were free to do so.

Maybe this is the same thing - Vatican II maybe ruled that only the priest has to do that, but other parishioners were going along with it out of either habit or out of "why not". And maybe your father was just thinking that "well, I don't have to, so I'm not gonna, so there".

(I kinda wish I'd met your father now, he sounds like a hoot.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:58 AM on September 7, 2022

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